S.D. transportation secretary talks about moving bales, mowing ditches and protecting broods

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Pierre Capitol building legislature

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year keeping up thousands of miles of state highways and bridges. The man at the top since 2007 at the state Department of Transportation is Secretary Darin Bergquist. A lawyer by training, he’s worked at SDDOT since 1998 under four governors — Bill Janklow, Mike Rounds, Dennis Daugaard and now Kristi Noem — each with a unique style. Two South Dakota traditions that all four prized are agriculture and pheasants.

This week KELOLAND Capitol Bureau reporter Bob Mercer posed a few questions about birds and bales that Bergquist answered. Here’s a transcript of their q-and-a.

Recently the South Dakota Department of Transportation issued a reminder that hay bales should be removed from road ditches by October 1. What are the reasons for that requirement?

A. Hay bales in the ditch can be a hazard when struck by vehicles that run off the road.  Also, if let until winter, they can cause drifting of snow and hamper winter maintenance activities, resulting in reduced safety for drivers.

Can others apply to take the bales if they’re not claimed?

A. Yes – permits are required and they are given out on a first-come, first-served basis.

The state Transportation Commission has a rule that specifically designates when road ditches can be mowed. What is the rule?  

A. (Bergquist cited 70:04:06:06 that regulates the start of mowing. The original rule was approved 44 years ago and has been changed five times, most recently in 2004.)

No mowing of the right-of-way may begin in the west river counties of Gregory, Lyman, or Tripp before June 15 and east of the Missouri River before July 10. All mowing by permit must be completed by September 1 each year.

Mowing of the median by contract may begin on the date the contract is approved and must be performed during the hours between sunrise and sunset. The contractor shall notify the department 24 hours before beginning mowing.

The department may mow medians and areas within the rights-of-way prior to July 10 to control noxious weeds and provide increased safety to the traveling public.

The statute granting the Transportation Commission rule making authority states… (He cited state law 31-5-21)

The Transportation Commission may, by rules promulgated pursuant to chapter 1-26, authorize the mowing of ditches on the state trunk highway system. The rules shall establish when mowing may be done, by whom mowing may be done, how and where mowing may be done, and the time limit for removal of hay if mowing is done for hay production. However, the rules shall provide that the original owner or assigns of land abutting the ditches on the state trunk highway system shall be given priority for mowing.

What year did it take effect?

A. It appears from the source information attached to the rule it first became effective in 1975, which was the first year the Transportation Commission was given statutory authority to adopt rules.

And what are its purposes?

A. The rule on mowing of the state highway right of way is intended to balance three competing interests.

One is allowing the right of way to be used as nesting habitat by breeding pheasants.

Another is allowing adjoining farmers to cut and bale the hay for their farming/ranching operations.

And third, controlling noxious weeds and maintaining the right of way in a manner that allows drivers to see deer and other animals before they enter the road and are struck by a vehicle. 

This year Governor Noem announced a bounty program for six species known to prey on pheasants and other game birds. The state Game, Fish and Parks Department managed it. Did the bounty program have any effect on SDDOT’s mowing operations?

A. The bounty program did not affect SDDOT mowing operations.

However, Governor Noem recognizes the importance of nesting habitat and so directed the department to cease any mowing operations until after July 10th.

Related to the bounty program, did SDDOT notice any difference in mowing policy this year along county or township roads?

A. None that I am aware of.

Has Governor Noem indicated whether she will continue the bounty program in 2020?

A. I do not have any information on plans for the bounty program next year, as this is a GF&P program.

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